Author J.Stephen Brantley has crafted a fitfully emotionally involving work that is unfortunately crammed with a plethora of zingers, strident political statements, and an irritating reliance on theatrical self consciousness.
Characters often address the audience. They yell to the technical staff, “Sound cue. Go!” They request songs to be played. They converse with each other as if they were in a play, “Can we take that back?” “Where?” “Before the piñata?” Characters narrates a scene that they aren’t in. These are all dispiriting distractions as the play does have moving and effective portions. The earthy dialogue richly details the gay milieu of the past in New York City. The cumulative result is an annoying clash between sincerity and irony. It’s nice though to hear Bella Abzug mentioned a few times even for comic effect.
The 35-minute first act is set in New York City’s East Village in 2008. Forty-year-old Roderick has responded to a call for help from the drugged out Tuffer (a nickname for Christopher) who is soon to turn 40. The two have had a long involvement as close friends bordering on lovers but without sex. They have become estranged since Roderick sorted out his life three years earlier and ceased partying and being promiscuious. Tuffer is a charming, drug-addicted wastrel with a trust fund and whose family owns the building his apartment is in. Roderick’s profession isn’t clearly stated.
Frantic and weary from his trip from Bushwick, Brooklyn, Roderick is angry that Tuffer is not in any danger but is simply high on crystal meth. He is with his newest fling Brandon, a very attractive 20-year-old Parsons School of Design student who is wearing only colorfully patterned briefs. There’s a lot of arguing and recriminations.
The more substantive 55-minute second act takes place in New Mexico at Roderick’s free-spirited folk pop singer mother Abigail’s (“Mary Poppins on peyote”) house. It’s believed that with this wholesome change of scenery Tuffer will be able to get clean in time for his milestone birthday.
Clad in a black leather jacket and combat boots with a severe haircut, the muscular and tattooed Mr. Brantley plays Roderick. Brantley is visually and spiritually so in tune with this possibly autobiographical character that it’s a riveting performance of tremendous depth.
Recalling Robert Downey Jr. at his most frenetic such as in Less Than Zero, Nico Grelli is a whirlwind of energy as Tuffer. Mr. Grelli fearlessly embraces the character’s obnoxiousness yet manages to achieve empathy for this overgrown spoiled brat.
In the role of Brandon, the airhead twink who is wiser then he seems, the youthful and very suitably physically fit Todd Flaherty is quite accomplished. Mr. Flaherty very skillfully conveys the believably quirky passion that the younger man feels for the older hedonist.
The delightful veteran actress Carole Monferdini is superb and instantly credible as the Earth Mother Abigail. Ms. Monferdini wonderfully plays the guitar and sings as well as warmly presiding over the New Mexico machinations.
Besides achieving sensitive and strong performances from the cast, director David Drake masterfully fulfills the playwright’s intentions with his lively and brisk staging. The collaborative group UnkleDave’s Fight-House’s fight direction is thrillingly realistic for several physical conflicts.
Set and props designer Andrew Diaz has created an inspired minimalist landscape. The East Village apartment is a spare space with black walls, a mattress, steel horses as furniture and a door spray-painted with political slogans and graffiti in a frame. That gets frequently wheeled around to indicate areas of the apartment. For the New Mexico locale there’s a long table with a colorful tablecloth and not much else.
The technical elements are often in overdrive as per the show’s conception.
Jonathan Cottle’s lighting design artfully imparts the numerous tones and moods of reality and fantasy with its explosive bursts of brightness, darkness and color.
The loud and evocative soundtrack (The Ramones are among the period musical artists heard) and the glaring effects of several broken bottles are crisply rendered by Mark Von Hare’s expert sound design.
Abigail’s flowing flamboyantly patterned blue skirt and her assortment of Native American themed jewelry are among the treasures of Audrey Nauman’s striking costume design. Brandon’s briefs and Roderick’s Militant Queer looks are also standouts of Ms. Nauman’s efforts.
Despite its structural excesses, at its core The Jamb is a worthy and potent work that vividly portrays the gay male experience in the recent past of the United States.
The Jamb (extended through September 24, 2016)
FRIGID New York@ Horse Trade in association with Hard Sparks
The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.horsetrade.info/
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with one intermission